Science Central

Beneath the Arizona Science Center’s $25 million renovation plan lies an underground (literally) imagination factory bursting with billion-dollar ideas


Published by: AZ Society, December 2007

The outer wall of the Dorrance Planetarium inside the Arizona Science Center was never meant to be an activity area – much less an X-Games–style vertical ramp.

But don’t tell that to the daily procession of elementary schoolers who have, over the past few years, transformed the steep slope of sneaker-friendly concrete into their own little gravity challenge zone.

“We thought about turning it into a rock-climbing wall,” says center president and CEO Chevy Humphrey, as she watches yet another pair of eighth grade boys, just out of their teacher’s eye, go charging up the sharply angled wall, indulging their inner Spiderman. “But – nah!”

If Humphrey’s disheartened to see her center’s once state-of-the-art, Antoine Predock-designed domed theater used as a skater ramp, it doesn’t show.

“Kids are very honest,” she says, with a shrug. “They won’t hesitate to tell us if something needs to be changed.”

Lately, the roughly 130,000 school-aged kids who come through the facility annually have been calling for change around the Arizona Science Center more and more. With many of its over 300 permanent exhibits growing between eight and ten years old – a lifetime to much of its main target audience – the center’s diminishing “rad” appeal has become a major concern to its board of trustees.

“The Science Center has always been very active in providing hands-on experience with the things the state says kids need to know about science,” says Hazel Hare, a board member and, coincidentally, a former chemist, who applauds the center’s crucial role in supplementing Arizona’s school curriculum. “But right now, it needs to catch up with what the kids themselves are expecting.”

Hare cites the center’s existing communications lab, where the exhibits have become the most glaringly dated, as a prime example. Back at the center’s birth in 1997, when the Internet was still a tyke, it might have sufficed to demonstrate the Web’s workings with an ant farm – one of the center’s original exhibits. Such antiquated offerings now draw snickers from today’s technology-tuned kids.

Fortunately, a big boost in funding is on the way. In March of 2006, after Phoenix voters approved $5.2 million in city funds to renovate the center’s outside access to make way for the upcoming light rail system, the Science Center’s board adopted a plan to add $20 million more in privately-raised funds to finance an equivalent renovation of the center’s insides. Since January, roughly $13 million of that has been raised, but another $7 million will be needed by mid-2008 to fund the revitalization that’s already underway, and scheduled for completion within four years.

Michael DeBell, chairman of the center’s “The Future of Education is Science” endowment campaign, says even experienced fundraisers have had to step up their game to keep pace with the imagination of Humphrey and her staff.

“Boy, no shortage of energy there!” says DeBell of the fireball CEO, who recently returned from a visit to the cutting-edge Shanghai Science Museum with 20 pages of notes for fresh, new exhibits. Plans for the seriously tired “Fab Lab,” for example, call for a giant interactive world map, a Wi-Fi lounge and a digital media lab, where visitors will edit their own YouTube clips of their trip. And a new “Earth Forces” gallery on the third floor will wrap a 360-degree projection screen around an immersible space where visitors will physically feel a hint of what it’s like to stand inside a hurricane, tornado or earthquake.

DeBell, who, as v.p. of DMB Associates is certainly no stranger to redevelopment projects, notes the Science Center has its own in-house machine shop and design studio hidden in its basement, which makes optimum use of each dollar contributed. Staffed by a creative class of inventors, woodworkers, graphic artists and computer geeks, the busy bottom floor of the Science Center feels like a combination of Santa’s workshop and a Google think-tank.

“That gives us a lot of efficiencies,” DeBell says. “Plus, it lets us rebuild exhibits as needed. When you have several hundred thousand young people coming through a facility each year, that’s a true test of how durable your hands-on exhibits are.”

Moreover, infusing the on-site creative staff with the much-needed funds should facilitate a more fluid infrastructure, allowing exhibits to be refreshed as quickly as the kids update their MySpace pages.

“We have to be flexible and bring on new exhibits as fast as possible,” DeBell stresses.

Keeping pace with the state’s own technology boom is a primary concern of the board. “With all the advances in the biosciences, around the type of work that TGen is doing, and all the innovations that Intel and Motorola and the university research parks are turning out, the Science Center finds itself in the role of translator,” DeBell says. “We have to expose that technology to our students in real-time, as it’s evolving.”

Mostly, though, the center needs to keep up with the kids themselves, who’ll clearly make their own interactive zone out of a planetarium wall if the exhibit inside bores them.

“You don’t get a second chance with today’s tech-savvy kids,” observes Hare, with a laugh. “You either grab them when they come in or they don’t come back. And that’s the challenge with this new renovation. We want to really grab ‘em again!”


Photos by Mark W. Lipczynski

Chevy Humphrey. Michael DeBell and Hazel Hare have fun at the Arizona Science Center

Center president Chevy Humphrey: "Kids won't hesitate to tell us if something needs to be changed."